1. It was Jesus' idea to give his Church structural unity by “building” it on a rock, like a wise man (Mt. 7:24). That “rock” was the former fisherman, Simon, the son of John.
|Peter with his keys and his upside-down cross, |
from Montserrat, Spain.
Jesus prepared Simon for this role through experiences, teachings (Mt. 17:25), prayers (Lk. 22: 32) and even rebukes (Mt. 16:23) that were unique among the apostles. Then, in a solemn way, he made it explicit by conferring on him a new name, the way God had changed Abram's name to Abraham, and Jacob's name to Israel. But “Peter” was a completely made-up name, invented by Jesus. “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16: 18). Of course, Jesus called him Kephas (Aramaic for “foundation stone” or “rock”) and not the Greek-style “Peter,” but Simon was known by both for the rest of his life. (We see Paul refer to him in both ways—Kephas and Peter—within a few verses in the letter to the Galatians, chapter 2.)
The Gospel of Matthew goes into detail on what this name change meant, quoting the prophet Isaiah to demonstrate the kind of authority Jesus was giving Peter. Like the new “master of the palace,” Peter was given the Master's own set of keys, to open and close, bind and loose. Later (Mt. 18:8) the Apostles would be given that power to bind and loose, but only Peter ever held the keys himself. Peter is consistently singled out among the Twelve. When Jesus offers a challenging teaching, it is Peter who responds for the rest (Mk. 10:28). Even when predicting Simon's betrayals, Jesus affirms his special calling to “strengthen your brothers” (see Lk. 22:32).
On Easter morning, the Angel at the tomb told Mary Magdalen and the other women, “Go tell the disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee' “ (Mk. 16:7) She ran “to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved” (Jn. 20:1). And even though the younger disciple outran Peter, it was Peter who first stepped into the empty tomb while the other waited outside. At the Sea of Galilee, the Risen Jesus put the care of his sheep and lambs into Peter's hands: “Do you love me? Feed my lambs” (see Jn. 21:15-19).
The primitive Church expressed Peter's special role in various ways. In every list of the names of the Apostles (in the Gospels and in Acts), Peter's name comes first. When the question of what to do about Gentiles seeking Baptism caused great controversy in the Jerusalem community, threatening its peace and unity, it was Peter whose declaration caused the assembly to fall silent (Acts 15: 7-11).
Even Paul had to explain, in detail, a confrontation he had had with Peter in Antioch. Although Paul took issue with Peter's behavior (not his teaching), that episode damaged not Peter's credibility, but Paul's.
Ultimately, the papacy comes from Jesus himself, through Peter.